It’s been six long years since Charlie Kaufman unleashed his wild imagination on a movie screen, and the world has been a little less creative, a little less down-the-rabbit-hole exhilarating in his absence. Waiting for the mad screenwriter to resurface, you had to wonder if his brilliantly dispiriting directorial debut, Synecdoche, New York, was the swan song it felt like—a last word from an artist who had taken his worries, fears, and hang-ups about as far as he could take them, dramatically speaking. But the anxiety well hasn’t run dry. Kaufman taps it anew with Anomalisa (Grade: A-), the Being John Malkovich mastermind’s first foray into animation. The film premiered at Telluride a couple of weeks ago, made another pit stop at Venice (where it just won the Grand Jury Prize), and is now wowing audiences in Toronto, including the mostly receptive packed house I nestled into last night for a late-night public screening.
You’d think, perhaps, that a filmmaker as limitlessly inventive as Charlie Kaufman would use the freedoms of animation to go bigger, madder, more elaborate than ever. But part of the unusual charm of Anomalisa is that it applies the wonders of stop-motion to a fairly mundane setting and events, and to a story that could be easily told with real actors, instead of the felt puppets employed here. In fact, Kaufman has already told it with real actors; the film is an adaptation of his own 2005 stage play, and he’s retained the original three-person cast (or their voices, anyway) and the plot, in which a despondent motivational speaker (David Thewlis) checks into a Cincinnati hotel and ends up wrestling with his demons. Because this is a Kaufman project, there’s a high-concept wrinkle, beyond the animation: Every person that Thewlis’ character encounters—men, women, and children alike—has the same voice, the flat monotone of Tom Noonan. All of them, that is, except for a mildly disfigured, socially awkward young fan (Jennifer Jason Leigh) he overhears in the hallway and immediately begins to romantically pursue.
The film, in other words, is another of Kaufman’s surreal portraits of self-loathing and alienation, this time suffused with some dry, almost Tati-esque comedy about the absurdities of hotel visits. It’s also an oddly affecting (if bittersweet) love story, culminating in a late-night rendezvous that’s one of the most beautiful passages the filmmaker has ever written or staged. Co-directed by Duke Johnson, who made the Adult Swim series Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole and helped out on the puppet episode of Community, Anomalisa feels in some respects like an experiment in audience engagement—one that uses animation as a distancing device, mimicking the disconnect the main character feels towards everyone around him. Whether or not Kaufman succeeds in eventually closing that gap is the big question; how one responds to a frank sex scene between puppets seems to be a fair litmus test.
Anomalisa was probably my most anticipated movie of the festival, and it didn’t disappoint. It’s equally thrilling, however, to stumble into something you have no expectations for, and to be pleasantly surprised. Faced with a dead slot in my schedule, I managed to finagle my way into a public screening of some random horror movie starring Emma Roberts and Kiernan Shipka (Sally Draper from Mad Men). From the opening frames, a dread-infused nightmare sequence, I knew that February (Grade: B+) was going to be something special. Set at a girls’ boarding school at the onset of a holiday, the film folds its familiar plot in a blanket of perpetually menacing atmosphere. Every scene seems calibrated to unsettle, first-time director Oz Perkins—son of Norman Bates himself, Anthony Perkins—delaying the violence in favor of discordant music (all moaning, skittering strings), suggestive application of offscreen space, ominous establishing shots, and vaguely unnatural performances. (It’s the kind of movie where every character seems just slightly… off, as though any one of them could have dark intentions.) And while the story itself is nothing unique, the script runs skillful misdirection, toying with the chronology of events and sometimes excising the connective tissue between scenes. The result is a horror movie that’s at once clearly indebted to its genre predecessors (shades of Suspiria, The Shining, and Halloween) and stylistically distinctive enough to feel new. It would pair well with Sundance hit The Witch, which is also showing here in Toronto.
February screens as part of the Vanguard section, which is fast becoming my favorite program at TIFF; last year’s selections included Spring, Goodnight Mommy, and The Duke Of Burgundy. Introducing Evolution (Grade: B), the belated second feature from French filmmaker Lucile Hadzihalilovic (Innocence), one of the curators described Vanguard as “Midnight Madness’ older, cooler sister”—a polite way of indicating that, Green Room notwithstanding, the truly artful genre fare tends to show up in this program instead. Evolution, about a group of preteen boys subjected to medical experiments in a seaside village, is no exception. “Beguiling” feels like a weird word for something so frequently gross and eerie, but Hadzihalilovic casts a singular dreamlike spell, her thin storyline evoking a cluster of childhood fears, preoccupations, and desires. It’s repetitive, but in the way a particularly memorable fever dream might be.
Add “crusading journalists” to the list of shared common themes at Toronto this year. Two of the fest’s most high-profile and star-studded Hollywood films pay tribute to the bravery of muckraking reporters. Bouncing back nicely from The Cobbler, writer-director Tom McCarthy assembles a stellar cast—including Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, and Rachel McAdams—to play The Boston Globe’s crack Spotlight team, which uncovered the massive, widespread child-sexual-abuse scandal in the Catholic Church circa 2001. Spotlight (Grade: B+), like All The President’s Men before it, is a gripping procedural about the nuts and bolts of investigative journalism, its running time devoted almost entirely to the business of chasing down leads, badgering sources for information, and flipping through stacks of pertinent documents in search of something useful. McCarthy keeps the focus almost squarely on the professional lives of his characters, and—grandiose piano score aside—he mostly lets the hard work speak for itself.
If but the same could be said for Truth (Grade: C+), a much more self-important ode to the nobility of those who tackle the tough stories. Whereas Spotlight dramatizes a triumph of thorough reporting, the directorial debut of Zodiac screenwriter James Vanderbilt focuses on an equally public failure: the 2004 60 Minutes piece on George W. Bush’s military service, and the subsequent fallout for those involved when questions about the authenticity of key documents were raised. Again, there’s an inherent fascination to seeing how the journalistic sausage gets made, and Truth is never more interesting then when it’s showing, in great detail, exactly how the maligned CBS team slipped up.
But the film also ends up feeling like something of a pity party for its protagonist, producer Mary Mapes, played here by Cate Blanchett. The script is based on her memoir, and goes out of its way to frame the whole story as a case of brave, intrepid investigators stabbed in the back by their corporate-controlled bosses, with the argument being that fact-checking mistakes shouldn’t invalidate the larger point of the segment. It’s a shaky moral ground to claim. Truth also goes really heavy on big, important speeches, with Topher Grace granted an embarrassingly self-righteous kiss off that’s equal parts Jerry Maguire and The Newsroom. And unlike Spotlight, which defines its real-life subjects through their work, the film resorts to some hackneyed characterization tricks, like linking Mapes’ career aspirations to a hatred of bullies, such as her abusive father. As for Dan Rather, he’s treated like a god among anchors, a pillar of integrity and well-earned stardom—in part, of course, because he’s played by Robert Redford, lending the role the full blaze of his living-legend celebrity.
In Room (Grade: B), director Lenny Abrahamson’s follow-up to the oddball music comedy Frank, Brie Larson plays a mother who’s spent years locked away in a tool shed, a prisoner of the stranger who kidnapped her as a teenager. Based on a bestselling novel by Emma Donoghue, the film unfolds chiefly from the perspective of the woman’s 5-year-old son Jack (Jacob Tremblay), fathered by the abductor and born into captivity. He’s never known anything but the four walls that surround him, so when Ma starts prepping him for life outside of Room (no definite article), the culture shock is intense. How do you adapt to the whole wide world when you’ve been raised to believe that it doesn’t extend beyond the boundaries of your sightline?
Abrahamson adopts the bifurcated structure of his source material, dividing the running time between a harsh, rigorously contained two-hander and later scenes of mother and son trying to acclimate to the aftermath of their ordeal. It’s a halfway radical dramatic approach; imagine if Cast Away had a real third act and you’re close to understanding what the film accomplishes. Room does frequently threaten to dip into outright sentimentality, its busy Stephen Rennicks score and Jack’s awed voice-over narration jacking up the whimsy factor to dangerous levels. But the hard truths of the characters’ situation—the difficulty of life on the outside—keeps snapping it back to earth, as do Larson and Tremblay’s performances. And while Abrahamson can’t quite find a convincing visual representation of seeing the outside world for the first time, he does wonders with making Room look like a much larger space than it really is—an accomplishment that doesn’t become fully clear until the film’s final minutes.
Were these fictional characters in need of a quick primer on what life is like in America, they could do much worse than In Jackson Heights (Grade: B+), Frederick Wiseman’s latest observational portrait of a place or institution—in this case, the titular Queens neighborhood, frequently described as the most diverse community in the world. Actually, it may be too diverse, at least as a subject for just one documentary: Determined to offer a typically comprehensive take, Wiseman stretches himself a little thin. Even at three hours and change, the film sometimes feels like a cursory overview, leaping from one business or social/ethnic group to the next; he could have made a whole documentary on, say, the transgender community in Jackson Heights, or the lively cabbie-training class he sits in on late into the film. The trade-off, of course, is that In Jackson Heights is bursting with interesting characters, moving anecdotes, and—most inspirationally—scenes of impassioned activists fighting to preserve the culture and history of their neighborhood. I couldn’t help but think back on the empty, sweeping “solutions” Michael Moore offered in Where To Invade Next, and to compare them to the slower but more tangible social change Wiseman’s subjects are fighting for on a smaller scale. At its best, Heights shows what real social progress actually looks like.
With only a few hours left in Toronto—Ignatiy and I fly back to the States tomorrow morning—I caught up with some more Cannes titles. Rams (Grade: B), which won the Un Certain Regard prize, follows a pair of brothers, both Icelandic sheep farmers, as their decades-long cold war thaws into outright conflict when their respective flocks are threatened by a virus. It’s a fundamentally minor character study, blessed with strong spikes of dry comedy, a gorgeous rural backdrop, and a final scene so powerfully affecting that it sends ripples of meaning backwards through the film.
Word of mouth on The Assassin (Grade: B), which won Best Director at Cannes, was so rapturous that anything less than death from euphoria would be a letdown. Hou Hsiao-hsien’s long-in-the-works wuxia movie is as visually stunning as advertised—that early switch from black-and-white to sumptuous color is one for the books—but it was also just a bit too remote for my tastes, even when compared to some of Hou’s other pensive dramas. Saddled with a story that’s at times hard to follow, The Assassin is at its best when breaking the stillness and quiet of its ancient setting with sudden flashes of kinetic battle—an external manifestation, perhaps, of the internal storms raging inside Hou’s stoic warriors. Conversely, why so quiet on Louder Than Bombs (Grade: B+), Cannes critics? Joachim Trier’s first American film, about a New York family coping with the death (and probable suicide) of their famous-photographer matriarch, unfolds through an intoxicatingly nonlinear flurry, its flashbacks, dream sequences, and fictional detours organized with a powerful emotional logic. Look for it in American theaters next year.